Jeff TALMAN (b.1953)
Nature of the Night Sky (2011) [50:20]
No recording details given.

I’ve fairly recently become interested in ‘sound installation’ projects like this, initially not so much as a space-filling fait-accompli, but as a way of exploring parallels between music and the visual arts. These days there are endless possibilities in ways of transforming music and musical instruments into realms of dimension by which they become something which teases the boundaries of recognition, rather than remaining steadfastly the domain of craftsmen in a concert hall. This can be ‘music’ without beginning or end, with structural implications which often defy or cease to be relevant to analysis, but which consists of sounds which retain their identity and are instantly identifiable as being part of any one piece – from any point within that piece. Nature of the Night Sky is just such a work.

Having already tinkered in this sphere of creativity and being hopefully pencilled in for some slow music festival action at some point in the future, I was of course instantly attracted by the opportunity to hear Jeff Talman’s work. Nature of the Night Sky has been generated by using the oscillation, and therefore resonant frequencies – the ‘sound’ of stars. Working closely with Dr. Daniel Huber, an astrophysicist currently working at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy, Jeff Talman describes the process of filtering “the dense packs of resonance in Daniel’s modelled star sounds... to extract each star’s principal resonant frequencies.” These were then mixed and overlaid, “to create the abstract, sonic-temporal forms of the work.”

This all creates a fascinating and indeed a ‘haunting’ effect as perceived by some commentators. Such resonances are forever trapped within the vacuum of space, so these are of course not real astral sounds, but you can close your eyes with this piece and immerse yourself in a cosmic space limited only by the extent of your own imagination. This is a binaural recording which is rather special when experienced though good headphones. Although the actual nature of each of the sounds given to each ‘note’ or frequency is similar, the location of each ‘star’ as it slowly emerges and recedes is almost tangible.

This is the kind of work which you have to accept for what it is, and use in whichever way suits you best. It’s not a work with conventional musical themes or development, but a constantly shifting field of sound which should awaken your imagination, but may also frustrate. It is in no way an unpleasant experience, though there are points in the piece at which smaller stars with higher frequencies cluster to create predominantly high sounds, the whistling tones making the cat leave the room when played through speakers. This is all gentle, low-impact stuff though, and I would imagine good for meditative use. There is a short sample on the New Domain website, and for what it’s worth the CD Baby ‘recommended if you like’ list cites Brian Eno, Morton Feldman and György Ligeti as comparable artistic voices, though this would have to be very work specific. An atonal Music for Airports might fit the bill in such a context.

Do I have any criticisms? Yes, but these are all observations of subjective philosophical and taste and shouldn’t put anyone off exploring the rich textures in Nature of the Night Sky. This is a piece which sticks rigorously to its Reinheit, its own self-contained concept and integrity, and this is clearly the maker’s intent and the way it should be. Aside from moments where the range of the sounds might arguably suggest the tones of some strange vocal choir, the sheer abstractness of the sounds is something I would want to do more with. Combine certain signals through an old-fashioned vocoder and you can quite easily achieve similar effects. True, there’s rarely anything really new under the sun these days, but having experienced Stockhausen’s final unfinished piece Cosmic Pulses and other extended electronic soundscape-type works, Nature of the Night Sky isn’t really taking us anywhere really novel. You could easily destroy the purity of this piece by introducing inappropriate elements, but I personally miss the tensions which might have been generated by including something from our planet or solar system. The effect of these solar resonances is remarkable, but Talman’s selection of resonant frequencies is of course also a subjective element. His Night Sky is pretty much atonal though some tonal relationships or virtual pedal-tones do hint at points of quasi-resolution. For me this is however a bit too easy. The wonder of an eternally shifting but never-resolving ‘celestial music’ would be more jaw-dropping if the eternally withheld promise of alignment and consonance were more present.

Jeff Talman and Dr. Daniel Huber are set to collaborate on a new project based on the sound of the sun in 2012, so it looks as if there is more to be explored in this sonic investigation of our cosmic surroundings. I look forward to this, and wish both them and new label New Domain Records every success in ventures which are proving to be far more than merely fascinating.

Dominy Clements

A sonic investigation of the cosmic – spacey and intriguing.